New Mexico Renewable Energy Conference Unites Policy With Technology

12/10/2010 08:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A creative combination of government regulations and more advanced technology will be needed to integrate renewable energy sources such as solar and wind into electricity grids worldwide on a more significant scale, said a panel of international experts.

Hundreds of engineers, researchers and policymakers from abroad are gathering this week in New Mexico for a weeklong conference to talk about the future of renewable and distributed energy systems. The conference will wrap up Friday with tours of projects at Sandia National Laboratories and the state's largest electric utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico.

The mission of those at the conference is to find more affordable and efficient ways to mesh large-scale solar and wind farms and smaller distributed generation systems that include the sea of solar panels popping up on residential rooftops around the world into grids that are dependent on consistent sources of power.

They're also focusing on ways policymakers can develop regulatory roadmaps for encouraging more renewable energy.

"It's all got to come together," said Charles Hanley, the manager of Sandia's Photovoltaics and Grid Integration Department.

Hanley referred to an idea he heard earlier in the week, that researchers aren't looking for a silver bullet, but rather "silver buckshot."

"We want to address everything that is necessary to make up a solid portfolio – that's on the regulation side, the R&D side and the technology and market acceptance side," he said. "There's got to be a number of pieces that add up to an overall solution to come away with an optimized smart grid that has a high penetration of renewable and distributed sources."

Nearly 30 states have developed renewable energy portfolio standards that require electric utilities to get as much as 25 percent of their power from renewable sources within the next decade, but experts at the conference say Europe is leading the way when it comes to articulating its goal to make renewables a majority source of power.

While the European Union has set targets of 20 percent by 2020, New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks noted that the United States is far from adopting a national renewable portfolio standard.

"What's unfortunate is in our country energy policy has been politicized in a very destructive way," he said. "To date, it's mostly been focused on climate change."

Marks said large systems for harnessing solar and wind power were things talked about only in laboratories a couple of decades ago, but now it's being done around the world every day.

Those at the conference heard about Ireland's work to integrate wind power into its grid and Japan's effort to deploy more solar photovoltaic systems.

"It tells me that we can achieve our goals, we can create an energy supply that is sustainable in the long term," Marks said.

The benefit of hearing about trial, error and success in various countries is that the wheel doesn't have to be reinvented, said Abraham Ellis, who works with photovoltaics at Sandia labs.

"We have smart people all over the planet thinking about it and coming up with creative solutions," he said. "We simply want to be able to apply the lessons learned and apply best practices in all of these areas, the technical aspects and regulation."

Another key, Ellis said, will be bringing down the cost of renewable energy.

Karina Veum of the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands said many European countries are trying to find the right combination of tariffs, premiums and portfolio standards to encourage deployment of more renewable and distributed energy generation.

Well-crafted policies and consistent financing through tariffs or other subsidies are what give investors and project developers confidence, she said.

Another hurdle is getting the public to buy in.

"The debate on what is the best support scheme is very much open," she said. "... A lot more attention will have to be given to the design, matching support level with generation costs, because as the countries support more and more renewables, the cost will increase for the consumer."